Democratic tensions simmer in House between left, center

Tensions are bubbling up between moderate and progressive House Democrats ahead of a busy end-of-summer legislative session critical to the party’s agenda.

Liberals in the House were initially disappointed with President BidenJoe BidenHouse Democrat threatens to vote against party's spending bill if HBCUs don't get more federal aid Overnight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Haitians stuck in Texas extend Biden's immigration woes MORE’s endorsement of a bipartisan Senate infrastructure deal they see as insufficient. 

Their fears were assuaged when Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Pelosi plows full speed ahead on jam-packed agenda Jan. 6 committee taps former Bush administration official as top lawyer Ocasio-Cortez, Bush push to add expanded unemployment in .5T spending plan MORE (D-Calif.) said the bill would not progress in the House unless the Senate also moves a more ambitious package backed by Biden that the party hopes to pass through budgetary rules to avoid a filibuster.

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“She’s made her thoughts known very clearly that ‘this isn’t going to happen without reconciliation folks, so get on it,’” said Rep. Marie Newman (D-Ill.), who defeated former Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) in a primary last year.

“The most important part is that those are moving on a parallel track. She’s been very consistent, and that’s our main point,” said Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanBiden seeks to build Democratic support among unions Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by the American Petroleum Institute — A warning shot on Biden's .5T plan Overnight Defense & National Security — America's longest war ends MORE (D-Wis.), the former chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Centrists, for their part, would like to point to some bipartisan compromises ahead of next year’s midterm elections. Pelosi’s move was one that worried a handful of those members, who were relatively pleased with the package taking shape in the Senate.

They don’t want the bipartisan bill to have to wait for budget reconciliation that will be filled with progressive spending priorities, some of which may make Democrats in swing districts vulnerable to GOP attacks.

“The reconciliation piece is much more complicated than people think,” Rep. Josh GottheimerJoshua (Josh) GottheimerCongress braces for spending fights amid threat of government shutdown Business groups aim to divide Democrats on .5T spending bill Sirota slams 'fake argument' for splitting infrastructure package, reconciliation bill MORE (D-N.J.), a centrist, told The Hill in an interview on Monday. “That process will likely take longer to get to an agreement.”

“There’s no reason why heading into August recess we can’t all go home with a great bipartisan victory for the nation’s infrastructure,” he added.

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The House Democratic Caucus has been remarkably unified so far in 2021, something that is needed given the very narrow majority Democrats enjoy. For much of the year, the party has only been able to afford a handful of defections to pass legislation through Congress. That means members must stick together to get things done.

For the most part, Democrats have been in agreement. But the battles over infrastructure and the larger reconciliation fight are likely to be a challenge.

The legislative debate is playing out as Democrats keep one eye on 2022, an election year where there could be primary challenges to some long-standing representatives. 

Moderates say their anxiety is heightened over progressive groups that want to recruit candidates to defeat sitting officials. 

“If progressives truly want the influence they seek, it would be wise for them to swear off primary challenges to incumbent Senate and House members,” said Simon Rosenberg, founder of the centrist New Democrat Network. 

“These challenges make it harder for Dems to keep the majority and legislate, and thus angers many of their colleagues.” 

Late last month, Gottheimer, Rep. Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesFormer Bad Boy rapper turned politician meets with US lawmakers Watch live: House Democratic leaders hold press conference Congressional staff pay is still too low MORE (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Terri SewellTerrycina (Terri) Andrea SewellThousands march on Washington in voting rights push Activists gear up for voting rights march to mark King anniversary House approves John Lewis voting rights measure MORE (D-Ala.) formed Team Blue PAC, first reported by NBC News, to protect incumbents within the party. 

“If they’re coming at you from one side and you’re always having to watch your back on the other side, I think it’s a huge distraction and it undermines our ability to protect our majority,” said Gottheimer.

“It’s very frustrating to a lot of our members who work together to protect the values we care about and the policies we care about," he added.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee does not wade into intraparty primary battles. With that in mind, Gottheimer said his PAC is “the best way to protect our majority from unnecessary distractions and from taking arrows from your own side.”

A senior House aide aligned with centrists said the possibility of primaries is “definitely on our radar.”

“Some moderates have tougher general elections, some moderates have tougher primaries. We’re very much mindful of that.”

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The Congressional Progressive Caucus’s political action committee “does not endorse primary challenges to incumbent Democrats” but often does get involved in both open and swing contests “where there’s a credible Democrat to Republican match-up,” according to Evan Brown, the PAC’s executive director.

But other progressive groups are not bound by that pledge. And it isn’t hard to see some animosity between centrists and these groups.

“Ever since AOC and Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyHaitians stuck in Texas extend Biden's immigration woes Advocates 'in utter disbelief' after Biden resumes Haitian repatriations Democratic bill would force Fed to defund fossil fuels MORE won their primaries, the opposition from the other side has increased,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesperson for the progressive group Justice Democrats, who was referring to two members of the “squad,” Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOn The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Pelosi plows full speed ahead on jam-packed agenda Photos of the Week: Renewable energy, gymnast testimonies and a Met Gala dress Ocasio-Cortez, Bush push to add expanded unemployment in .5T spending plan MORE (D-N.Y.) and Pressley (D-Mass.). 

By the “other side,” Shahid meant moderate Democrats.

“I think that our opposition is getting more organized,” he said. “They’ve fought us every time, but the level of it is increasing.” 

Progressives view primaries as a way to compel Democrats to move left, which they see as a key to enacting real change in the nation.

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Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley both defeated longtime incumbent Democrats, as did Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.) in 2020.

Justice Democrats is now working with four candidates, including three primary insurgents and former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, who is running in an open seat to replace Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia FudgeMarcia FudgeSanders goes back to 2016 playbook to sell .5T budget Activists detail legal fight against HUD for Philadelphia housing Photos of the Week: Rep. Cori Bush, Beirut clash and duck derby MORE in the 11th District.

In another sign of the festering tensions, House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) is backing a Democratic opponent of Turner in that primary.

Progressive challengers Odessa Kelly in Tennessee’s 5th District, Kina Collins in Illinois’s 7th District and Rana Abdelhamid in New York’s 12th District have far surpassed Ocasio-Cortez's, Bowman's and Bush’s fundraising during their comparative first quarters, the group said.

Abdelhamid, a community organizer who is competing against Rep. Carolyn MaloneyCarolyn MaloneyOvernight Defense & National Security: US-Australian sub deal causes rift with France Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Emissions heading toward pre-pandemic levels Oversight Republicans seek testimony from Afghanistan watchdog MORE (D-N.Y.), disagreed with the assertion that primaries from the outside could possibly throw the balance of power in Congress to Republicans.

“Challenging a Democrat in a deep-blue district is not what’s threatening our slim majorities in Congress,” said Abdelhamid. 

“I am confused as to why some members of Democratic leadership think party resources should go to protecting safe corporate-backed incumbents in deep-blue districts instead of to protecting our majority in Congress.”